For the past few years, D.C.-based artist William Beutler has been mapping the real and fictional locations of David Foster Wallace’s giant novel Infinite Jest in a project called Infinite Atlas, a Google Maps-based guide to over 600 locations described in Infinite Jest. Beutler’s project has sprawled (appropriately) to include several dimensions, including Infinite Map (shown above), which identifies and describes 250 locations from the novel and Infinite Boston, a travel blog of sorts that documents and reflects on Beutler’s Wallace-based trip to Boston. Beutler was kind enough to talk to me about his projects over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: How did the Infinite Atlas project start?
William Beutler: I think, like a lot of long-term projects, I’d point to a few different points of inspiration. The first is just going back and reading Infinite Jest for a second time in 2009, after I’d say it went from being a favorite novel to my actual favorite novel. I’d also become interested in infographics, I suppose as a kind of art form based on the expression of data—and what better stockpile of data than a thousand-page, encyclopedic novel? I cycled through a lot of ideas, finding that some of them had already been done before, and then finally deciding to focus on geography.
Biblioklept: How did the geography focus come about?
WB: The geography focus owes to a few different things. One is simply that I wasn’t the first to arrive at the idea of creating an infographic based on Infinite Jest, so I had to take that into consideration. Sam Potts, who is the designer of John Hodgman’s books, had released an elaborate graphic drawing connections between the various characters in the novel. I’d been considering that when his came out, but he did that pretty definitively, so I went with one oft he other. And hey, I just like maps. I started my career in political journalism, where districts are always being redrawn, and maps are always being shaded this much red or this much blue, so it was a natural focus in that regard. And there’s always been something I’ve liked about adding a layer of information to geographic features. I don’t know that I could have credibly called myself a geography enthusiast before this—but I have friends who definitely are, and even some who work with GIS professionally. They helped me figure out what I was doing.
Biblioklept: Did you consciously start using Google Maps? Was Google Maps a starting point in and of itself or just a tool?
WB: Google Maps was probably one of the very last decisions we made. And all the web development was relatively late in the process, starting about early summer of this year. Most of the work before that was simply building the database, which lived in Google Docs for most of this research period. The decision to use Google Maps wasn’t necessarily random, although I had actually made an early conscious decision to not use it. I’d suggested Open Street Maps, partly because I like open source projects, and Foursquare had switched to it, which seemed like a noteworthy endorsement. But my developers said Google Maps was going to be less time-consuming, and less expensive, and I was willing to take this advice.
Biblioklept: Can you talk a bit about how you put the atlas together? What was your approach? How did you start?
WB: In the very early going, it was as simple and painstaking as going page-by-page through the book, scanning each one for proper nouns, and taking notes down in Google Docs. This was myself and another friend who had read the book, Olly Ruff, who is one of the credited editorial advisers. We debated what really counted as a “location”—Orin’s “Norwegian deep-tissue therapist” lives “1100 meters up in the Superstition Mountains,” overlooking Mesa-Scottsdale. So is that one location, or two?And once we realized we had so many locations, this was about the time I realized the original idea, which was just the map, was not going to be the comprehensive accounting for the novel’s locations I had imagined. Once I decided we had to explore an interactive version as well, then we had to decide which locations were just going on the map, and how many. Then we had to figure out where certain locations were actually located, and that was a considerable amount of research as well. Sometimes it was very obvious-—Harvard Square is very easy to find, but some places I didn’t even know were real until I visited Boston. We also had to figure out how to show both the scope of North America alongside the detail of central Boston, and this just took an agonizingly long time. This is where some of my friends who worked with maps for a living proved helpful. The further into this I got, the bigger of a project it kept revealing itself to be. And since the point of no return was never clear, I just kept at it, never entirely sure how long it would all take, until we actually started working with designers.
Biblioklept: How did actually visiting Boston help to inform the project?
WB: About a year into the research, I realized that I was hitting a wall with some of the local details in Boston, which has the greatest concentration of locations of anywhere in the novel. More specifically, the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton already kind of run together, and then Wallace invented a whole new unincorporated community called Enfield, where most of the primary characters live, and its relationship to Allston-Brighton was very confusing. The trip helped me get a better sense for what was Enfield and what was Brighton, although there’s only textual support for boundary lines to the east and south.Also regarding certain locations, I knew the Brighton Marine hospital complex was the basis for Enfield Marine, and I knew that the hill behind it was where the Enfield Tennis Academy would be, if it existed, but Google Maps and Google Street View have some pretty obvious limitations. So putting boots on the ground was really the only way to be sure about some of these places. I was surprised by some things I found: there’s a “Professional Building” mentioned as being at one intersection when it’s really another, which I had no idea until I walked right up to it. And the Infinite Boston Tumblr simply couldn’t have existed without the trip, but the trip was also absolutely necessary for getting a lot of details right for Infinite Atlas and Infinite Map.
Biblioklept: How long have you been working on the Infinite Boston blog?
WB: The Boston trip was in July 2011, and the notion of doing a Tumblr travelogue to the project was probably in the back of my head at the time, but I didn’t really start thinking about seriously doing it until earlier this year. I’d been sifting through the photos—I came back with about 4,000—since then, and in the spring I started making decisions about what I had acceptable photos of, and what I had enough to write about, then I started planning the sequence in June, and putting together notes in early July. And though I had quite a few entries planned out weeks in advance to begin with, these days I’m finishing them the night before, or up to the last few minutes before publishing.
Biblioklept: The Infinite projects clearly will resonate with fans of Wallace’s novel. What do you hope they take away from your work?
WB: I can’t begin to tell you the number of people who’ve told me they started Infinite Jest, and gave up after making it a surprisingly long way through it. One friend of mine spent the better part of a decade having read to at least page 600 before finally finishing it earlier this year. (He ended up helping out as a backup researcher.) I’ve heard it said that the book doesn’t really start coming together until about 400 pages, and it’s been much too long since I first read it for me to remember, but I know the feeling of hopelessness that goes along with struggling early in a long novel (I’m still working myself back up to revisiting Gravity’s Rainbow and Europe Central…). I think a project like this can serve as a kind of promise to the uninitiated that there really is something here that people feel very strongly about, that it rewards the effort one must put into it. There’s much more to it than just being a hipster status symbol. And then I think it can help those who are reading it, both to confirm details they may have misread the first time or—better still—to make connections they might never have made without this kind of tool. And of course to visualize it as David Foster Wallace surely did, if they’re so inclined. That said, I’m not sure the Atlas is a resource I would have consulted when I first read the book. I tend to be very spoiler-sensitive, oftentimes purposefully going into a novel or a film or television series trying to know as little as possible. Of course, I know now that Infinite Jest can’t be “ruined” by knowing about a particular story arc, and I’m sure that others so wracked with fear over knowing that two storylines connect, so I hope they’ll find this a useful resource.
Biblioklept: I’m curious if you’ve read Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory?
WB: I have not actually read any Houellebecq; I’m primarily familiar with him for various controversies, and I do remember the allegations that he had plagiarized Wikipedia for The Map and the Territory, and the possibility then that his book would be judged a Creative Commons-licensed work. Anyhow, I am familiar with the map-territory relationship as described by Alfred Korzybski, and Infinite Jest was my introduction to it. I think it’s very relevant here, not that anyone would necessarily mistake the atlas as anything but a supplement to the novel. Actually, one of my early working titles for the project was “Map / Territory,” and the website includes a kind of epigraph, taken from the Eschaton section: “The real world’s what the map here stands for!”
Biblioklept: I figured the Eschaton episode clearly resonated with your project. What sections or characters of IJ stand out as favorites to you?
WB: Believe it or not, Eschaton was one of the last location segments that I added to the Atlas. Early on we’d focused on real places where scenes actually took place, or references to North American locations that fell inside the confines of the map. And Chris Ayers of Poor Yorick Entertainment had already made a pretty nifty Eschaton infographic, so I was hesitant to do too much with that. But it became clear that we were going to take a maximalist approach, and really locate absolutely everything that could be located, so then I went through and included everything from Eschaton as best I could.If I had to name a favorite section, it might be the very last, with Gately and Fackelman holed up with Mt. Dilaudid, avoiding the wrath of Whitey Sorkin. It’s just beautifully written, and for whatever criticisms anyone might still make about the novel lacking a proper ending plot-wise, it makes perfect sense emotionally. In close contention, though, is Gately’s first chapter, about the disastrous burglary in a “wildly upscale part of Brookline” that turns his life around. It’s the first section in the story really that took my breath away—that or I was holding my breath waiting in vain for a paragraph break to exhale. Anyway, the unsurprising answer regarding my favorite character is Don Gately. He’s maybe DFW’s single greatest creation.
Biblioklept: I agree with you on Gately being Wallace’s greatest achievement—I love the sections you mention as well. I think many people who can’t get into IJ probably don’t get to that burglary/toothbrush episode quick enough.
WB: I don’t know, the number of people who have made it to halfway or further and then still give up, just speaking anecdotally, is staggering. I’ve personally given up on much shorter books, which is probably every book I’ve given up on, considering I haven’t bothered to try Imperial or some of Vollmann’s other longer stuff. Plus, it’s not like there isn’t grabby material early on: the “where was the woman who said she’d come” scene with Erdedy is very dense, but I think immediately rewarding in a way some of the Hal and Orin material up front is not. And there’s no way around the fact it’s just a months-long project in a way few novels are.
Biblioklept: Have you had any response from Wallace’s estate about your project?
WB: I haven’t, nor have I solicited any. In development on the project, I had considered reaching out to Bonnie Nadell, but I didn’t really know what I’d be asking. This wasn’t going to be the first infographic project or fan art based on the book, so I didn’t think permission was an issue. A friend had offered to put me in contact with D.T. Max, if I needed, but I didn’t want to bother him, either. The most response I’ve had is two retweets and one reblog from whomever’s running social media for Little, Brown, and it’s more than I would have asked for.
Biblioklept: Do you have another project on the horizon after this one?
WB: To be honest, I’m not even sure I’m totally done with Infinite Jest yet. I’m still writing Infinite Boston on a daily basis through the end of this month, and we’re actually putting in some further refinements on the Infinite Atlas website. Besides that, I’d been editing a very short film when I turned to focus on this, so I’d like to complete that now. And I’m sure this isn’t my last map, either.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
WB: Haha, that’s a great question. And the answer is yes. One that comes to mind in particular I found in a teacher’s lounge in the j-school at the University of Oregon, where I worked and never quite completed my journalism double major. And I don’t have it handy—I’m afraid I’ve left stolen property on a shelf at my parents’ house—but it was called something like The Declining American Newspaper and its publication date could have been no later than 1965. Even when I found it, this was still early days of the Internet. I wasn’t sure whether it was prophetic or preposterous, which is basically why I pocketed it. Less a book, more a conversation piece. Next visit, I’ll try to make partial amends by actually reading it.
Not really news, but I somehow missed this: Both Flesh and Not has a cover, apparently, as well as a product description:
Beloved for his epic agony, brilliantly discerning eye, and hilarious and constantly self-questioning tone, David Foster Wallace was heralded by both critics and fans as the voice of a generation. BOTH FLESH AND NOT gathers 15 essays never published in book form, including “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” considered by many to be his nonfiction masterpiece; “The (As it Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2,” which deftly dissects James Cameron’s blockbuster; and “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” an examination of television’s effect on a new generation of writers.
Both Flesh and Not is due around Thanksgiving this year.
Book shelves series #21, twenty-first Sunday of 2012: William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace
Sorry about the glare in the photo above. As I seem to attest weekly, photography is hard. Photographing books is hard. Lighting issues, glare etc. Anyway, this shelf is half Vollmann, half DFW. I’ve written so extensively about these guys on the site that I won’t bother linking to anything here. A few months ago, Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions was hanging out here, but then I put Expelled and Imperial on the shelf, bought Everything and More, and also picked up some more Gaddis, and, well, anyway, had to move him up with Joyce, where he seems to belong. The paperback of The Pale King is a review copy; it has additional stuff. Maybe I should part with the hardback. It seems ridiculous to have them both.
The copy of Girl with Curious Hair is extremely important to me, as silly as that sounds. It was one of the first books I ever “reviewed” on this blog, back when I still focused almost entirely on books I’d stolen or books I’d never returned to. From that review:
Scott Martin was kind enough to loan me this book. Did he know that it would forever change the way I read? It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was slowly reaching beyond stuff like Henry Miller, Wm Burroughs and Franz Kafka. David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Girl With Curious Hair introduced me to a whole new world of writing. Reading DFW is like having a very witty friend tell you a moving and funny story over a few beers. He’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and not nearly as hard to read as people seem to think.
I leave the bookmark I’ve been using in almost every book I read. When I pulled Girl from the shelf, I found a Polaroid of my cat:
He’s just a kitten here. His name is Remy. He no longer lives with us, but he’s still around. We moved a year ago from a bungalow set above the ground (i.e. with cat crawl space) to a ranch on a block (i.e. no crawl space). He didn’t want to move because he was having this romance with a stray my daughter named Pearly. I eventually trapped him and moved him to the new place, but I foolishly forgot he’d have no place to run and hide while getting acclimated. He ran away. A few months later I found him down the street. He looked happy and came up and talked to us. He followed us back to the new place and we gave him some people food treats. Then he left again. We seem him every now and then. He’s gotten surprisingly fat and seems to like the new people he’s taken up with. They have two boys, a little older than my kids. Sometimes I miss my cat.
What Does the Internet Think? is a somewhat addictive site that aggregates and analyzes opinions on the internet — I’m not sure exactly how it does this, but it’s fun. I plugged in a few writers this morning (when I should have been working) and here share the results (and, yes, I know that this means almost nothing. Just for fun).
I was happy to get a trade paperback of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King this weekend (thanks Hachette!) for a few reasons. First, I detest hardback books — that didn’t stop me from picking up (and reviewing) TPK when it debuted last year — but I know I’ll prefer this paperback for rereadings. More to the point, the paperback boasts four vignettes not published with the hardback last year, which I’m sure is in no way a cynical marketing ploy cooked up by the publishers. On those scenes:
Okay, so yes, I read them. They’re short, and they don’t really add to the novel; actually, they probably take away from the Michael Pietsch’s fine editing work. Still, DFW fans will eat them up. I’ll try to reflect more later.
There’s also one of those reading group guide sections, which cracks me up. Are book clubs gonna read this book? I mean, I hope they do, but they’ll likely hate it. Here’s a question that caught my eye, mostly because I wrote a bit about §19 this summer.
The New Critics’ biggest contribution to literary criticism was the dictum that analysis was to be applied strictly to the text itself, without the muddying impurities of biography or any other outside knowledge influencing the reader. A context-free reading is pretty hard to come by, though, isn’t it? School syllabi are arranged around era or genre, or both; our teachers preface each novel or poem or story or essay with a nod to its relevance; a friend hands us a book because it’s “good.” We furtively flip through Tropic of Capricorn, knowing its rep; we look down our noses at abstinence vampire novels. In short, it’s hard to get to that pure reading the New Critics favor. Still, I’ve always thought it’s a pretty good strategy to put aside biographical/author psychology, and just stick to a good close reading of the text. Today, reading David Foster Wallace’s “Wiggle Room,” I was completely unable to do that.The context of Wallace’s recentish suicide hung over each page, each sentence. It was a distraction that led to a (necessary) rereading, a distraction that colored the reading–and then the rereading. A strange little voice popped into Wallace’s dense narration that kept whispering, “posthumous, unfinished novel.” But now that I’ve complicated and contextualized and complained, perhaps I should simply comment a bit on the story now.
In dense, thick sentences, Wallace relates a work morning for Lane Dean, an IRS rote examiner who detests his Sisyphean job. Like many cubicle-dwellers, Lane spends much of his day trying not to look at the clock. He also tries to use an inspirational photo of his son sparingly, so that the effect might be more intense. However, the boredom on this particular day overwhelms Lane and he “had the sensation of a great type of hole or emptiness falling through him and continuing to fall and never hitting the floor. Never before in his life up to now had he once thought of suicide.” Trying to truck through it is no good: “Lane Dean summoned all his will and bore down and did three returns in a row, and began imagining different high places to jump off of.” These thoughts of suicide are mixed with a strange humor. As Lane’s depression becomes frantic, Wallace writes, “Unbidden came ways to kill himself with Jell-O.” As Lane becomes more and more anxious, it becomes apparent that–paradoxically–his boredom literally excites him. He gets all worked up about it, about the thought of having to devote a whole lifetime to such meaningless, boring work. The scene culminates in an horrific image:
When he started to see the baby’s photo face melting and lengthening and growing a long cleft jaw and aging years in just seconds and finally caving in from old age and falling away from the grinning yellow skull underneath, he knew he was half asleep and dreaming but did not know his own face was in his hands until he heard a human voice and opened his eyes but couldn’t see who it went with and then smelled the pinkie’s rubber right under his nose.
The “human voice” that wakes up Lane is a strange cyclopean figure, an older man who delivers a weird lecture on the origins of the word “bore.” The scene is pure Wallacian, filled with plenty of erudite references and jostling with a love for etymology. It literally zaps life-force back into the text, and punctuates Lane’s boring day–which Wallace has so expertly made the reader suffer as well–with some strange, frightening fun. Wallace’s narration makes clear that the appearance of this strange man is not simply Lane going crazy from his boredom–Lane clearly cannot understand half of what the man refers to. Instead, we are given this nugget: “The phantom of the hallucination of repetitive concentration held for too long a time, like saying a word over and over until it kind of melted and got foreign.” After philosophical reflection on why the need for a word for a condition like boredom might have arisen, the episode ends with the phantom leaving and Lane looking up to see that “no time had passed at all, again.”
The emphasis on the ways a person’s soul might be bored into, how one might become bored, and what that might mean, proliferates the short text, and perhaps evokes some of the themes we’ll find in the whole of The Pale King. As the quotes I pulled suggest, the idea that boredom might feed a suicidal impulse resonates strongly in light of Wallace’s unfortunate death. But there I go again, letting context color my analysis. But if we’re only left fragments, isn’t it natural to want to pull them together, to frame them–to give them order–context? Its hard to say and probably not worth guessing if Lane Dean and the phantom will be major parts of The Pale King or not, but as the text progressed, I found myself more and more interested. Apparently, The Pale King will be published with notes and outlines–some bits of context–perhaps giving readers a clue as to how the text was meant to progress. Who knows. A lot of readers felt that Infinite Jest didn’t have a proper ending (not me, though). While I think that the “Wiggle Room” episode stands well on its own, I’d certainly be happy to read more about the phantom. Still, Infinite Jest was larded with lots of little vignettes that added to the whole, but it’s important to point out that there was a whole to be added to–not just a series of vignettes. I’m really hoping that, even unfinished, Wallace has left us something of substance and depth, something that narrativizes–contextualizes–its themes into a meaningful work of art.
This post will be full of typos and rhetorical slips and just generally bad writing. I’m just gonna write and post and I won’t bother editing. Sorry.
This morning, after BLTs with wife and child I checked my email. My buddy Damon sent me this article from the New York Times. Damon’s subject line, “David Foster Wallace dead at 46 (suicide)” kinda blew my mind. I didn’t get past the first lines of the Times report before tears started coming out of my eyes.
I’ve read all of DFW’s books, and, as corny as it sounds, the majority of them spoke so directly to me, so intimately, that I feel as if I’ve lost someone I knew. I’m sure that this isn’t the case at all, because he’s a writer and I’m his audience. He’s not friends or family. But reading him doesn’t feel that way. I would describe his style as a really, really good friend sitting on the couch with you, telling you stories that were both painfully funny and painfully sad. Infinite Jest provided a world of escape–a world I became addicted to–when I felt lonely in a foreign country I’d moved to. Girl with Curious Hair changed forever the way I thought about writing and reading–it opened me up to a whole new bank of authors and styles. But it’s probably DFW’s essays that hit me most directly.
Anyone who’s read the title essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, or “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” from that same collection knows just how funny and insightful and analytical Wallace could be–all without any of the caustic meanness a lesser writer might employ. DFW’s essays–and fiction–are always negotiating the razor line between earnest emotion and ironic detachment. He hated the latter but understood it was part of a cultural mode, part of the counter-tradition of post- or meta- fiction that he was continuing and responding to with his own writing. The two essays that probably best exemplify this are a Fun Thing‘s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (this should be required reading for every thinking person) and “Authority and American Usage,” DFW’s take on who-decides-what-is-proper-grammar-and-diction (collected in Consider the Lobster). I was re-reading the essay last Thursday and last night, with the intention to finish it today, with the intention to use it as part of something else I had planned to write. It will be impossible to finish it with the same reading schema in mind.
Just last week I listened to DFW reading from some as-yet-unpublished stuff; one section, on an overachieving boy that everyone hates is hilarious. The crowd is sometimes laughing too hard for DFW to maintain his rhythm and he has to slow down. In the interview that follows the reading, DFW seems like a really sweet, honest guy.
I remember distinctly my cousin calling me, well over a decade ago now, to tell me that Kurt Cobain had shot himself. I felt nothing then–it seemed perfectly logical. I was a huge Nirvana fan; they were my first concert and a big musical/cultural determiner in my young life. But his suicide seemed normal, natural even to me. I remember thinking “Of course.” When Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide, it seemed strange to me that he’d taken so long to do it. And when one of my favorite writers of all time, Kurt Vonnegut, passed away last year, I felt sad, but not so sad. So it goes.
This, this devastates me though. How could he hang himself? Why? I feel selfish and sad. Will we get another novel? Is it wrong to feel this way? I’m pretty sure that it’s wrong. I think about his body, hanged, and it makes me sick. I honestly felt close to this person. Unlike DeLillo or Pynchon or Barth, there was no veil or mediation in Wallace’s greatest work, no distance between his voice, or his speakers’ voices and my own burning internal ear. I have no pithy statement or philosophical wax for this piece, I have no way of summing up here. I feel sick.
Scott Martin was kind enough to loan me this book. Did he know that it would forever change the way I read? It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was slowly reaching beyond stuff like Henry Miller, Wm Burroughs and Franz Kafka. David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Girl With Curious Hair introduced me to a whole new world of writing. Reading DFW is like having a very witty friend tell you a moving and funny story over a few beers. He’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and not nearly as hard to read as people seem to think (by the way, simply googling “David Foster Wallace” will yield several vitriolic essays by people who think that DFW is somehow duping his readers. He’s not. These people don’t know a good story when they read one.)
Girl features “real people” like Alex Trebek, David Letterman, and Lyndon Johnson as characters, but constantly destabilizes any realism these figures might lend to the story. The novella included in this collection, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, alludes directly to John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (another book I’ve loaned out and never gotten back). Westward takes a critical but humorous look at how culture is commodified: the plot centers around a reunion for everyone who has ever acted in a McDonald’s commercial. At the reunion, plans are revealed for a series of real-life “Funhouses,” based on the work of “Dr. Ambrose” (Barth’s stand-in in Westward).
Girl with Curious Hair is probably the best starting point for anyone interested in DFW but daunted by 1000 pages of Infinite Jest (IJ is yet another one I loaned out and never got back). Girl‘s stories have a little more ‘pop’ to them than DFW’s latest collection, Oblivion, and Girl tends to be easier to find used than DFW’s other collections, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (actually a better collection, in my opinion) and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (a collection of hilarious essays and nonfiction).
To sum up: if you still haven’t read DFW go consume this book; when you’re done you’ll be left wondering: “What other good stuff have I been missing out on?”